One of the great strengths of a Marvel Studios project is the scene where the hero and villain trade their philosophical differences. Sure, not all villains are created equally — not everyone can be Thanos or Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) — but even the slightest of bad guys usually has some valid point to make that challenges the hero’s worldview. OK, maybe not Ego (Kurt Russell). His ideas stank.
Spoiler alert: The following reveals details of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode 4, “The Whole World Is Watching.” Stop here if you have not watched the episode.
Nevertheless, that strength is once again on display in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s fourth episode, “The Whole World Is Watching.” A conversation between Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Karli (Erin Kellyman) was inevitable. But the topics they discuss may be more thrilling than the subsequent fights with John Walker (Wyatt Russell). So let’s dive into the philosophical argument at play and how a key line of dialogue from the past may help us to understand why Karli is still an antagonist after her chat with Sam.
But first, let’s discuss Zemo and his seeming standing as a protagonist in this scenario. His argument against the Super Soldier Supremacy is sound. Hell, his argument against the Avengers is sound at this point. Both represent an emerging aristocracy based entirely in might so strong, it can topple a Mad Titan. From the ground, that is a chilling concept; in fact, we’ll give some credit to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and its illustration of just how frighting it would be to live in a world of super-powered people. The Marvel multiverse, meanwhile, always excels at humanizing these tech billionaires and Super Soldiers. It’s easy to trust Tony Stark (for the most part) and Steve Rogers, because we know their hearts. Without that knowledge, though, they easily become as imposing as Zack Snyder’s Superman or the Batman.
It is the thrust of Zemo’s argument: only Steve was honorable enough to be trusted with the serum (and even then, he still held him accountable for Sokovia). If it were to be produced on a mass scale, then there would be an army of Super Soldier supremacists ready to make the world cower under its flag.
And his notion sounds good except for one thing — Zemo is himself an aristocrat. If history has taught us anything, it’s that you cannot trust the aristocracy. He may continue to champion the people’s causes, and he certainly has an easier time empathizing with the displaced than an Avenger, but his lament for formerly beautiful palaces in Latvia suggests a royal still caught up in his memories of decadence and splendor. So, can we really trust Zemo if he is a baron looking for a barony to run?
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One thing in his favor is the way he dealt with the serum. His behavior in this moment reveals a truth about his character; he meant every word about his distrust of Super Soldiers and the Avengers. Where another villain might take the serum and build that supremacy for themselves, Zemo barely hesitated to smash the vials; of course, that seeming altruism may be couched in an aristocrat’s belief that they alone can rule over the people.
Meanwhile, he continues to be a cool tactician. He clearly expected Walker and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) to show up and provide cover for his escape. Despite our healthy skepticism of an aristocrat, the show makes it very hard to hate Zemo.
The night before Steve (Chris Evans) took the Super Soldier Serum in Captain America: The First Avenger, Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) told him a key fact about what it does: it “amplifies everything inside,” so “good becomes great; bad becomes worse.” Steve, having a heart so pure even Mjolnir deemed him worthy of the power of Thor, became the greatest human. Red Skull’s (Hugo Weaving) use the serum unleashed a mad scientist ready to supplant Hitler’s notion of supremacy with his own.
And almost a century after those events, Erskine’s understanding of the serum is once again in play.
Let’s start with Karli. Her aims are honorable; she wants to maintain the world without borders where traditional tribalism is replaced with a broader sense of global community. The serum has made her more effective in that goal. But it also unleashed a darker aspect of her soul. She’s willing to kill, intimidate, and create the supremacy Zemo fears to get what she wants. This is the slippery slope of revolutionaries — or, at least, the revolutionaries American schools acknowledge in their history classes — the temptation to use might to create a seemingly gentler world. Sadly, it often just means a new aristocracy replacing the old. Noble ideals fall away as revolutionaries find the need to maintain power is nearly impossible to resist. Very few can follow in Cincinnatus’s footsteps (although even his story is fraught with problems), and, at the moment, we doubt Karli will be able to abdicate power under any circumstances. Had Zemo not destroyed the vials, Sam and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) would be dealing with 20 Super Soldiers instead of five.
We’re back to that number as Walker used the serum to kill one of Karli’s men. But let’s move on to Walker as the serum is clearly doing a number on him. As far as we can tell, he’s not over Afghanistan. That’s totally reasonable as plenty of soldiers in our world also suffer from the stress and memories of their service over there. But we get the impression Walker — and possibly Lemar (Clé Bennett) — never sought out the sort of support group Sam used to run before he became an Avenger. Note the way Walker bristles at Sam’s mention of counseling as a viable option for Karli. Also note Walker’s increasing frustration at waiting for the talking cure.
This only escalates once he takes the serum. Sure, the justification he elicits from Lemar is reasonable. More people could be saved, but John would need to process his PTSD and his inferiority complex in order to use the serum effectively. Sadly, he’s not that kind of soldier, and the serum definitely unleashes a villain. Add to that the psychological stress of seeing Karli murder Lemar, and you get something far more terrible than Zemo or the Flag Smashers. It certainly feels like a sleeping giant has been awakened.
It will be interesting to see how the GRC and the American government deal with the fallout of Walker’s very public actions next week. They’ll likely try to strip him of the Captain America title, but will he be willing to give it up?
Oh, and what did the serum do for Bucky? Free of Hydra conditioning, it made him the best possible partner for Captain America’s true successor — even if both he and Sam deny that partnership.
In order for Sam to truly becomes Captain America, though, he needs to understand what those words mean in a post-Blip, post-colonial world. Although the program is produced by an American conglomerate known for exporting American culture in ways that can be viewed as imperialistic, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is doing some soul-searching about stomping on other cultures with the presumed moral authority the U.S. claimed in the wake of World War II. Sam embodies that with both the brilliance and hopeless optimism Karli points out during their key conversation.
As with his offer to get Sharon (Emily VanCamp) a pardon last episode, Sam operates on the notion he can pull off the same sort of feats as Steve. Never mind he is unwelcome in his own country — remember the scene at the bank — or how his presumed authority looks to a person who shuttled around the slums of Europe most of her life.
And yet, Sam and Karli want the same thing: a fairer world.
The problem they face, and the one we face on an hourly basis, is the very concept of fairness. But as Karli eludes to in her eulogy to Donya Madani and expressly says to Sam a few minutes later, a part of the fairness she seeks is the peace and prosperity she found in the years of the Blip. Fairness is an equitable share of resources and an unprecedented freedom of movement. It is also means the chance to build things as communities united in a humanist philosophy instead of the old distinctions of race, country, and religion.
Sam supports these ideals in theory, but as he missed the Blip years, he cannot really understand what it was like. Like Bucky’s limited empathy with Ayo about King T’Chaka’s death, Sam’s understanding of the Blip world falters no matter how many times he tells Karli he gets it. Admittedly, it sounds like a paradise to us, but it comes at an unacceptable cost. And as we now know Karli is willing to commit to the grim calculus, it makes their conversation all the sadder. Then there’s that moment when Sam almost gets through to her before Walker bursts in. Now, the only way forward is blood for Karli and Walker.
We presume Sam will try to keep the peace, but like Karli, he will be fighting a war on two fronts. For Karli, that second battle will be with the Power Broker, who will be none too thrilled to learn the remaining serum vials are gone. We still don’t know who the Power Broker is, however. Like last week, Sharon is still a possibility. Her free movement through Madripoor, access to satellites, and high-tech command station certainly suggest a level of clout and resources far beyond the picture she gave to Sam last week. It is possible she works for S.H.I.E.L.D. or S.W.O.R.D.; in fact, as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was meant to stream before WandaVision, Sharon’s shadiness may have been meant to lead into the agency’s first appearance. Or maybe she really did break bad and fund a new Super Soldier program. A showdown between her and Karli would be unexpected.
It is also possible the Power Broker will be the special episode 5 cameo showrunner Malcolm Spellman alluded to in recent days. But after all the digital ink we spilled with WandaVision‘s supposed cameo, we’re unwilling to put a lot of thought into this possibility. If it turns out to be Victor Von Doom or Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), we’ll be pleasantly surprised.